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Why Saudi Arabia is Emerging as a Leading Fintech Hub in MENA

With the Saudi Central Bank introducing a new open banking framework, we examine why the kingdom is betting on fintech.

May El Habachi

Why Saudi Arabia is Emerging as a Leading Fintech Hub in MENA

Saudi Arabia’s fintech sector is booming. While fintech across the MENA region may be growing rapidly, it is growing exponentially in Saudi Arabia, especially when compared to previous years.

In 2022, fintech emerged as the most funded industry in the kingdom with $239 million raised, a 167% increase compared to 2021, according to Magnitt’s 2022 Saudi Venture Capital Report. This growth can be largely attributed to the extensive digital transformation taking place in the country as part of the Saudi Vision 2030.

Fintech was not the kingdom’s only growing sector in 2022 - Saudi Arabia’s startup ecosystem also witnessed record funding of nearly $1 billion, a 72% increase compared to 2021, according to Magnitt. With investments only set to increase, the country’s startup ecosystem  is expected to continue its acceleration over the next few years.

“The market has been growing significantly in Saudi Arabia,” Said Mourad, Partner at Global Ventures, a VC firm based in Dubai, tells StartupScene. “It has been propelled by multiple factors, chief amongst them is the support that companies in the technology and startup ecosystem have been receiving from government and government related entities. There is a lot of focus on how this sector can actually help transform and grow the economy significantly. Fintech specifically is a reflection of growth in the advancement from technology and services providers, as well as from a regulatory perspective.”

The new open banking framework introduced by the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) in November last year will allow businesses to test their products and services against established frameworks, further boosting financial innovation, and positioning Saudi Arabia as a leading fintech hub in the region.

EVOLVING BEYOND DIGITAL PAYMENTS

Despite the rapid growth of fintech in the country, the sector was not always thriving as it is today. Fintech only started gaining momentum in the kingdom soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, prompting a permanent shift in spending habits, and the embrace of digital financial services.

“Everything changed when the pandemic came,” Muhannad Ebwini, Founder and CEO at HyperPay, a Saudi-based fintech startup, tells StartupScene. “It took us three years ahead in terms of growth.”

According to Ebwini, HyperPay experienced 179% growth during the pandemic. And as the startup grew, so did its fintech solutions. Founded in 2014, HyperPay went from being a standard service payment provider (PSP) to becoming a full fintech B2B service provider.

“We are offering our clients across the Middle East with multiple B2B fintech services,” adds Ebwini. “We’re now way beyond payments only. We provide many services such as lending, merchant cash advance, card issuing, and very soon we will be in open banking.”

But like any fast-growing market, increased opportunity often leads to increased competition as more market share becomes available. For Ebwini, this meant that he had to focus on two market niches, government merchants and B2B clients, to create customised products. By pivoting to new business opportunities, HyperPay started to witness 80% to 100% YoY growth.

“We started to win really big merchants and see really healthy growth rate YoY,” says Ebwini. “We also started to expand into different product lines, and some of them we could be rolling into separate companies.”

FINDING TALENT

Although the industry is growing and evolving rapidly in Saudi Arabia, finding and recruiting talent still remains a challenge for many fintech startups.

According to the 2021 Fintech Saudi Annual Report, almost 40% of fintechs in Saudi Arabia consider talent and recruitment to be their biggest challenge, with 88% stating that finding the right skillset was one of the main challenges in hiring talent.

“Finding talent can be difficult,” Hany Soliman, Regional Head at PayTabs, a Saudi-based payment solutions platform, tells StartupScene. “Today, it may still be a bit challenging, because there is talent available but it is not as big as the demand in the market.

At the same time, however, more initiatives are emerging to bring in more talents to the market.”

One of those initiatives is Fintech Saudi. Launched in 2018 by the Saudi Central Bank in partnership with the Capital Market Authority, Fintech Saudi works to enable the development of fintech in the country. From supporting infrastructure to upskilling talent, Saudi Fintech aims to transform financial technology and innovation in the kingdom.

“Fintech Saudi is a very important initiative,” adds Soliman. “They’re not only trying to support new companies in the sector, but they’re also supporting new talents that are actually interested in stepping into the fintech space.”

For PayTabs, which operates in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, finding talent doesn’t seem to be impacting the startup much as it is quickly expanding across the region. Last year, the startup acquired Saudi’s Digital Pay to offer POS terminals to e-commerce businesses and traditional retailers, and took over Turkey’s social commerce platform Paymes to enable freelancers, home-based business owners, and micro vendors to receive instant payments.

Alongside its expansion, the startup is also working on introducing new solutions to the financial industry. “My target market is not only merchants and retailers, but our vision for 2023 is going to focus on the financial industry,” Soliman says. “We’re focusing on how we can deploy our solutions and technology that we’ve been building for the past eight years to serve financial institutions and banks, and help them improve their infrastructure and even optimise the cost of transactions, in addition to many other services.”

CHANGING THE FINANCIAL LANDSCAPE WITH OPEN BANKING

Open banking, which is generally defined as enabling customers of financial institutions to share their data with a third-party provider, is set to be a game changer for Saudi’s fintech sector.

Soliman believes that this will not only facilitate new and innovative services for customers, but that it will enable more people to adopt digital financial services.  “Open banking will help with onboarding,” he says. “The advantage is that open banking provides a unified infrastructure between the entire financial industry to have a sort of seamless, instant, and dynamic transactions, as well as movement between different sectors.” Soliman is not the only one who’s optimistic about the launch of the new open banking framework. “It will attract other fintechs and other founders to come start and launch their businesses in the kingdom,” Global Ventures’ Said Mourad says. “Several companies from the global venture portfolio have been actually looking at that, so we’re quite bullish on what we see there.”

As fintech continues to evolve, so will its growth opportunity in Saudi Arabia’s startup landscape. Today, more and more fintechs are expanding in the country, whether by launching new products or services, or entering new markets. This growth is anticipated to continue over the next few years.

“We expect to see continued growth, continued development, continued collaboration, as well as companies going into multiple verticals,” says Mourad. “In general, it’s a very positive sentiment in what we’ll see in terms of fintech in Saudi in the next year or two.

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